Tuesday, September 19, 2017

So My Students Read Below Level. Now What?

This is a complex question...and one that almost every post on this blog seeks to answer in some form, from some angle. Today I will be talking about HI LO books. This is an especially pertinent topic at secondary levels.

Just to backtrack for a moment, if you have a student that is not reading at the level of your planned class novel or text, then you must do one of two things:
  1. Provide an instructional scaffold so that the student can read above his/her level, or
  2. Use a different text

The first option will be fodder for a different post. This post will address the second idea: using a different text, specifically HI LO texts.  Just recently I spoke with a junior high principal who said,  “I get what appropriate reading levels are for elementary schools (thank you Fountas and Pinnell for A-Z levels and thanks for Guided Reading levels), but what does this really look like in secondary schools with 'big' kids?”

What is a HI LO Book?
So the term ‘HI-LO’ as a descriptor for a certain kind of books has been tossed around in the field of education for awhile. The “Hi” stands for  “High Interest” and the “Lo” is short for “Low Vocabulary”. This is the type of book that is written for a target age group (often secondary kids) with ideas and themes that are relevant for this age group, but written with words and sentence patterns that are simpler, and thus more understandable. And because they are more accessible (in that striving readers can comprehend them) and more engaging (in that they are targeting a particular age group’s issues/identity) they are often a good fit for disengaged and/or striving readers.  

Where do I Find The Hi Lo Stuff?
In the olden days tracking down HI LO books was a bit of challenge. Publishers had not fully jumped on the HI LO band wagon. Today, more and more publishers are producing HI LO books. Most of these are still in novel-like format, but some resources are now tackling texts for content areas and/or ELL Readers. See below for a link to a list of several kinds of HI LO Resources.

The HI LO Complication for Secondary Students---Enter the Adolescents
The complicating factor about HI LO texts for secondary students is that because reading comprehension is a complicated cognitive task, it is extremely variable from kid-to-kid, but also from situation-to-situation for the same kid. For example, a student who has low comprehension on one text, could successfully read a text that is several levels harder in a different context or with a different piece of text. This is where motivation, background knowledge and interest kick in. A student could read above his/her acknowledged reading level if:
  • she is interested in the matter being covered,
  • he has considerable background knowledge in the content area of the text,
  • she is motivated to get through the reading,
  • he was provided sufficient instructional supports,
  • she was reading in a social situation (shared /partner reading, talking)
  • he had choice in picking the text

This is why CHOICE, CONFERENCES and ACCESS to a wide range of reading materials is so, so, so important for adolescent readers. I have previously blogged about the guiding questions teachers can ask themselves as they think about getting the right book into the hands of their students here.   

Below are examples of HI LO books. These include publishers’ HI LO texts, as well as “regular” books that can act as HI LO for secondary readers, which you can find at your nearby bookstore. Here are some general guidelines for selecting HI LO books for your collections:

1. Publisher Designated HI LO Books
Several publishing houses offer HI LO books. Most of these are novel-like texts, although there are some resources on this list that are for content areas.  Click here to view the (in progress) list.

2. Thin, Approachable books.
Fragile readers will often steer clear of books that appear too long, thick or hard. Shorter, thinner books are usually better.  

3. Books with Short  (episodic) Writing
There are lots of these books in bookstores these days. Sometimes our secondary kids can persevere through a shorter text. These are students who may ‘give up’ or lose comprehension on a long piece of text. So a secondary student reading at the elementary level, may be able to read grade level texts that are shorter. Examples of some of these include:

4. Cool Topics
Books that appeal to teens because of their pop culture or teen identity tie ins, can motivate readers to pick up above level texts and to be successful with them.

5. Books with Pictorial Support
There are a lot of ‘grown up’ books that are visually heavy, providing a lot of pictorial support for the text. In particular National Geographic does a wonderful job of this. Infographic anthologies, graphic novels, magazines and a lot of ‘interesting nonfiction’ does this well. Many of the examples on the above bullets are full of visual support. Here are a few more:

6. Harness the Power of Background Knowledge and Interest
One of the best reading strategies is simply to know stuff about what you are reading. So if you have a student who is a striving reader, but who knows a lot about hockey, then hockey books will be HI LO reading for that student. Same goes for interest.

7. Harness the power of your Library and Library Staff
If you are lucky enough to work in a building with library staff, get them involved in your quest for finding the right book for your students. They have a vast knowledge of books and the school collection.In fact, as my wonderful library technician friend Denyse told me, "a large part of our job is to help striving readers find books. Our roles in the school library should  include having the extra time to take a few minutes to sit with these readers and help them get on the right track as far as what they want to read now and in the future.  If we spend the time each week developing these one on one relationships we now have the ammunition to help them and the teachers build reading strategies and next read lists." I couldn't have said it better myself. I have blogged about Read Next Lists in the past. Read about them here

Although there are several ways to start thinking about what constitutes a HI LO text for your students, the key to remember is that for adolescents the HI LO question goes deeper than just here is a HI LO book. The whole process requires conversation and understanding about who your students are as readers. Resources match the student, not the other way around. It’s tricky work--because by the time we get striving readers in the secondary grades, they are fragile readers and we must handle them gently.

If you need some help thinking about how to resource your classroom or library with HI LO books, feel free to give me a call. Or if you know of a really good resource, I’d love to hear about it.



Update (Oct 20, 2017): For folks interested in HI-LO resources, you may also be interested in reading this pas post about Online Free Leveled Resources for Secondary Students.

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